A Seven-Year Ricochet

With an Eye Lost, a Police Shooting Victim Waits for Justice

While Vivian Rodriguez remains in stable condition at Bellevue Hospital with gunshot wounds she suffered on August 4 when the police raided a Williamsburg apartment loaded with stolen goods, she is only at the beginning of a long journey—not only of physical recovery but of battling for a judgment of responsibility and restitution. And if the past is any indication, she may also find herself embroiled in a round of renewed activism to demand policy reforms in the New York City Police Department. Changes (whether reforms or not) seem only to come at an egregious human cost, the kind paid by Eleanor Bumpurs, Anthony Baez, Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, and others. Whether the seven police-involved deaths thus far in 2003 will bring about change is yet to be seen.

Juberky Silverio (now Stevens), 31, is one of many shooting victims whose names are not so well-known. Like the 30-year-old Rodriguez, she was born in the Dominican Republic. Silverio, shot in the eye, is still seeking a full recovery that only several more surgeries (and the money to pay for them) can complete. She has sued the city for $100 million (as Rodriguez plans to do) and at present her case is in court-ordered mediation to try to reach a settlement before a December trial date.

On February 16, 1997, Silverio, then 25, was leaving a friend's birthday party at 506 West 172nd Street with her brother, sister, and her sister's boyfriend at 4:30 a.m. They took the stairs from the second floor, and as they reached the last step before turning the corner into the lobby, they heard three shots. She said, "Oh, my God." Then she felt woozy.

Juberky Silverio Stevens, wounded February 16, 1997, by a ricocheting police bullet
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Juberky Silverio Stevens, wounded February 16, 1997, by a ricocheting police bullet

According to the New York Post, police officers, who had been passing the building while searching for a missing person, saw Rafael Hernandez, 39, sitting on the stoop holding what turned out to be a BB gun. Silverio's lawyer, Richard Gross, says, "The police claimed they told him to drop the gun, which is disputed by an independent witness. One cop fired one shot; the other fired eight. Hernandez was hit four times as he was retreating. Some shots were fired through a closed outer door; the inner door was ajar. There were numerous bullet holes in the door."

From the stairs, Silverio says, she and her family couldn't see the trouble coming to a head in the first-floor hallway. "I didn't hear nothing, no argument in the street, nothing like that." Full-metal-jacket bullets fired into the hallway smashed the Plexiglas vestibule doors and one struck her in the temple, blew out her right eye, and shattered the bone and tissue of her eye socket.

A beautiful woman then and today, who still suffers from feeling she doesn't look normal, Silverio combs her hair over the right side of her face. "I was a happy person, always smiling," she says. "I went out with my friends, had a social life and my job. I became much more quiet. I was feeling ugly. I put my head down."

A resident of the Bronx who worked in a party decorations store, Silverio was without medical insurance. She received emergency treatment and 10 days of care at Harlem Hospital, but no reconstructive surgery. Arthur Miller, another of Silverio's lawyers, said that Harlem Hospital refused to do reconstructive surgery because she was not insured and could not pay. The Health and Hospitals Corporation denied the charge. Owing to the publicity around this accusation, her initial plastic surgery and a prosthesis (a glass eye) were donated by doctors and staff at Our Lady of Mercy Medical Center in the Bronx. The doctors rebuilt the eye socket, and, with skin from her leg, restored the temple area. She now needs removal of scar tissue that has developed over time, and a solution to the problem of no longer having tear ducts.

Feeling disfigured after she recovered, Silverio restyled her hair and wore sunglasses. Even so, people stopped her, recognizing her from the papers, and she recalls her fear of working behind a counter again.

When Silverio was injured, she was the chief wage earner in her family and spoke little English. She was unable to work for a year. Her mother, Clara Ortiz, now retired, was a child-care provider, and she put up signs in their neighborhood seeking more clients. Her brother worked, and her sister went to high school. In 1998, Silverio began to look for employment. "I didn't want to feel like I couldn't do anything," she recalls. "I made myself be strong." Her former employer gave her a job and she became a manager. She went to school to learn English. In 1999, she met Will Stevens at a police precinct near her home.

Silverio's mother had called the police that Christmas when she and a child she took care of were caught in the middle of a dispute between the parents. At the precinct, she and her daughter met officer Stevens. Later, he called several times to check on Ortiz, and began to speak with Silverio as well.

Stevens, 38, who previously worked as an engineer, has been on the force for seven years. He was intrigued by Silverio and, unaware of her story, found the woman with the half-hidden face a mystery. Recalling the shooting incident after getting to know her, he says, he felt "it was personal, because I was already in love with her. Inside me, it was churning because I began to realize how these things affect peoples' lives in a really big way. It was so unfortunate, so tragic."

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